Apple's AirPlay might be getting all the attention lately but it's hardly the first solution for wirelessly streaming media to the television. Far from it. In 2003, the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) formed with its first set of interoperable products hitting the market in 2004. Since then, the alliance has certified thousands of products supported by more than 245 member companies, 29 of whom are listed as "promoter members" including such heavyweights as Sony, Nokia, Samsung, Toshiba, Verizon, AT&T Lab, LG, Qualcomm, Cisco, Microsoft, Panasonic, Intel, HP, and Motorola. Pretty much everyone but Apple. Recently, HTC joined the DLNA ranks with the introduction of two smartphones -- the Desire Z and Desire HD -- and a tiny media streamer known as the HTC Media Link, HTC's first attempt to gain a foothold in the living room. Over the last week we've been testing the Desire Z (a Eurofied T-Mobile G2) with the Media Link, lazily streaming video, music, and images around the house using a myriad of sources and controllers from Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and Western Digital. How did it perform? Click through to find out.
To say that HTC's Media Link is small is an understatement. It measures just 71.5 x 45 x 8-mm which is about two-thirds the length and width of a credit card and about as thick as a stack of nine. It's so small that we thought that our friendly government import agents had stolen it from the box that had obviously been jimmied open for inspection while en route to our European test lab. The DLNA 1.5 hardware is easily dwarfed by HTC's modular wall plug (which is already pretty small). As a result, the streamer's placement is easily overwhelmed by the tension of the attached microUSB-to-USB and miniHDMI-to-HDMI cables that come bundled with the device. Not that these are complaints, it's just surprising to see a media streamer this small when we're used to the relative bulk of more traditional streamers from Roku, Western Digital, and Popcorn Hour. The only other remarkable physical feature on the Media Link is an unremarkable button on the front with an LED indicator letting you know if the device is on and serving up WiFi.
One thing that we miss is a 3.5-mm jack to give us more control over the audio output. The Media Link is so portable that you're bound to pack it up and use it in situations where a decent amplifier isn't available -- like, say, in a conference room with a projector or connected to a hotel room TV. Situations ideally accompanied by a set of small but powerful portable travel speakers.
Out of the box there isn't much to setup and it should take no more than five minutes to have up and running. Unfortunately for us, we plugged the Media Link directly into the HDMI jack of our projector -- a two year old Epson EH-TW420 -- and nothing happened. We rebooted the Media Link a few times, reinserted the HDMI cable and still, nothing. No signal detected. Before shipping it back to HTC though, we attached the Media Link to a Viewsonic monitor and voila, success. The Media Link sprung to life with a familiar HTC Sense startup chime and graphics.
From there we could change the default password and tell the streamer to either attach to our local WiFi network or act as a standalone 802.11n 5GHz WiFi hotspot. We tested it both ways, though for home use it certainly makes sense for it to be joined to your local WiFi network. Otherwise, you'll be forced to constantly switch networks whenever you want to make the jump from internet access to streaming media over to the Media Link. Regardless, we like the flexibility here.
It's worth mentioning that HTC is developing a Media Link app that will help you quickly switch between the Media Link hotspot and your home network. It's headed to the HTC Hub but it wasn't yet available for download at the time of this review.
You won't be regularly streaming 1080p Matroska Blu-ray rips from your storage constrained handset so we began our testing with a real-world scenario: using the Connected Media app found on the Desire Z to stream The Engadget Show podcast video already synchronized to our handset. This worked perfectly, whether the Media Link was setup as its own WiFi hotspot or as a member of our home WiFi network (located about 30 feet from our wireless router) without any hiccups in performance, thus erasing our initial frustration with the projector setup. Same with our on-device audio collection and the images and video captured by the Desire Z's camera -- it just worked.
In general, streaming content that the Media Link recognized (more on that later) stored on our HTC Desire Z worked most of the time -- we'd say about one in ten uses resulted in some kind of unexpected behavior. Foibles ranged from the wrong picture being displayed when selecting individual images from a photo album, volume controls not responding, unexpected delays or resets, and large videos unceremoniously quitting (and requiring a restart from the beginning) while trying to scrub forward or back. We were disappointed to discover the lack of album art support on streamed music and our inability to fast forward or rewind our streaming audio or video -- you can only skip to the next or previous items in the playlist. Other issues that frustrated the experience included the occasional WiFi dropouts, and our inability to ever get the Media Link to work with our home theater projector. Nothing to get too worked up over, mind you, because when it worked (which was most of the time) it was fantastic and dead simple to operate. And the fact that we could use the Desire Z to select compatible media from our Windows 7 laptop (Microsoft built DLNA support into the OS) and Mac running the Twonky Server (sold separately) was just icing on the cake. We even managed to sneak a Galaxy S in to share some photographs.
Unfortunately, not all DLNA devices are built the same. Like many alliances, vendors grow weary of debating the merits of their enhanced feature suggestions in hopes of gaining formal ratification in the published standard. As such, in time, it becomes difficult to know where the DLNA spec ends and the manufacturers' customizations begin. We were already baffled by the stated Media Link requirement for "a DLNA-compatible HTC phone" coming into the review. Was that tacit admission of incompatibilities or just an attempt to promote HTC's own products? After all, DLNA certified devices should play nice with eachother, right? Not always, as we discovered when testing with the very popular Galaxy S from Samsung and WD TV Live HD from Western Digital.
Galaxy S owners are already familiar with DLNA, or at least they should be since the AllShare player / server is one of the handset's primary features. Things looked promising in our early testing allowing us to stream photographs captured by the Galaxy S to the HTC Media Link when using the S or Desire Z as the controller. We started having difficulties, however, when we began to test audio streaming between the Galaxy S and Desire Z. Although we could stream audio fine from AllPlay direct from the Galaxy S to the Media Link, we could not initiate the stream from the Galaxy S when using the HTC Desire Z as the controller. When trying to browse media from the audio folder the Desire Z kicked back a curious error message saying "no photo or video files" could be found -- even though we were looking for audio. And yes, we had the AllPlay server configured to automatically accept all video, audio, and picture requests. We also ran into what seems to be a codec issue when trying to stream H.264 videos captured natively to a .MP4 container by the camera on the Galaxy S. Unsurprisingly, it also didn't work when using the Desire Z as the controller to launch the stream off the Galaxy S. We even transferred the Galaxy S video to the Desire Z and still couldn't get it to stream to the HTC Media Link even though it would play fine locally on the HTC handset.
Just for kicks, we decided to further test cross-platform DLNA compatibility between the Desire Z and a Western Digital WD TV Live HD we have sitting on our network. Again, while things generally worked, we had issues that manifested themselves by the WD box showing up as busy (even though it was idle) and therefore unable to accept a content stream from the Z. The most irritating issue, however, was watching the Desire Z connection drop immediately after initiating a stream to the WD box such that it could no longer control the content playing on the display.
Perhaps this partially explains why Apple -- a very prominent DLNA Alliance holdout -- doesn't want to get caught up in the non-standard standards nonsense that results in the kind of incompatibilities we saw when testing the HTC Media Link and Desire Z with the DLNA certified Samsung Galaxy S handset and WD TV Live HD streamer. Other than 3G (UMTS) video calling, it's hard to think of a more widely deployed and useful technology that's as underutilized as DLNA. In fact, your TV might already support DLNA media streaming if your set features built-in WiFi or an Ethernet jack. It's more commonly implemented than you think. And like Apple's proprietary FaceTime video calling solution, AirPlay is another shameless attempt to exploit industry incoherence and the consumer ignorance that has grown up around DLNA in order to differentiate Cupertino's own products. A shame really, but we'll take it if they can improve upon the user experience in typical Apple fashion. But we digress.
We then turned our attention to testing the Media Link's codec support. The spec sheet claims video support for 3GP, WMV, MPEG4, H.263, H.264, and XVID; audio support for AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR-WB, MP3, and WMA; and GIF, JPEG, BMP image support. We started by hammering the H.264 codec with a number of unprotected H.264/MPEG-4 AVC movie trailers created using a variety of H.264 profiles in both 720p and 1080p formats -- all of which were packed into MP4 containers. Most of these failed to stream to the HTC Media Link from either the Desire Z handset, Windows 7 PC, or Mac running Twonky Server. One 720p file did manage to stream to the Media Link even though it wouldn't play locally from the Desire Z's microSD card. Another 720p file streamed fine off the Windows 7 PC for playback on the Desire Z but not the Media Link -- leading us to wonder how it was possible that the Media Link didn't support at least as many codecs as HTC's own handset. The 720p Engadget Show recorded to H.264 in a MP4 container worked fine in every test as did a few DVDs ripped to H.264 in .AVI containers. Unfortunately, after testing a couple of dozen sample files, it was clear that the Media Link suffered from a rather narrow list of codec support such that we were ultimately surprised anytime a new test file actually streamed.
By comparison, the WD TV Live HD successfully streamed every test file over DLNA, and at 1080p when available, and connected to our home theater projector.
We suspect that many of you would be pleased to wirelessly stream the photos and home videos captured by your new HTC smartphone to the living room television. A proposition made all the more compelling if you could also stream your collection of digital videos, audio, and photos from any Windows 7 PC, Twonky-fied Mac, or big fat DLNA-compliant NAS server. Unfortunately, the €119.99 / £99.99 HTC Media Link is hamstrung by a high price tag and rather paltry list of supported codecs that pales in comparison to $100ish DLNA streamers like Western Digital's incredibly flexible and feature rich WD TV Live series. Hell, even Roku is promising DLNA support in the near future. So we can't recommend the Media Link as the primary, cross-platform gateway to stream your digital media collection to the living room television. However, it could prove useful as a highly portable accessory that lets you quickly share the media captured by your new HTC handset to an HDMI-equipped display. But what really sells us on the Media Link is the idea of setting up a portable WiFi network in the hotel room that lets us stream compatible media off the laptop to the hotel television while lying in bed using HTC's Desire Z or Desire HD as the remote control -- naked of course, holding a turkey leg. Unfortunately, we suspect that HTC had hoped for a larger, more genteel demographic with its first foray into the digital living room.